PHOTOS: Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography/Ottawa Fury FC
By Théo Gauthier
The Fury may have won a crucial match against a playoff rival on Friday night at TD Place, but something was clearly bothering head coach Nikola Popovic—both in his halftime and post-match comments.
“It’s a very even game,” Popovic began when interviewed by sideline reporter Bianca Molnar as the teams headed to the locker rooms for halftime. “In our culture, we don’t complain. But if we had another culture, I would be saying things not related to football. I’m very, very upset.”
That was the appetiser. Then came the main course.
When asked to expand on his halftime comments after the match, Popovic had this to say: “There are a lot of things that are strange here and that sometimes makes me reflect (on) if I’m supposed to be here…” There was a long pause before he finished his thought. “…if I’m going to continue here. Because what I’m trying to do here is help Canadian football. What happened in the first half was just terrible. I don’t want to comment because I follow our culture (of not complaining) that I established here until the end.”
In an email sent after his comments were posted to Twitter, Fury Communication Specialist Michèle Dion sought to clarify that Popovic’s “post-match comments were focused on the game’s officiating…and that the way he formulated it came off more dramatic than intended.”
On Sunday morning after training his squad, a more relaxed Popovic was reluctant to address the comments he made on Friday night, chalking them up to getting caught up in the emotions of the match: “I think we have to take these words according to the situation, according to the game. That specific context is related to the game; it’s nothing much to speak about. The people to whom (my words) were destined, I think those people understand.”
When asked directly if his future with the Ottawa Fury was in doubt, he was unequivocal: “No, no, no, no, no, it’s all related to one game, one situation. I have this with my players: we don’t let the good things go to our heads, and the bad things we don’t allow to come into our hearts.”
Going Halfsies With Atlanta
The Fury face a unique situation on Tuesday, resuming a suspended match in Atlanta with only one minute left in the first half and the score tied at 1-1 from an own goal by Eddie Edward and an equaliser from Kévin Oliveira. Popovic says he feels like Bill Pullman’s character in the David Lynch movie Lost Highway, in which the Mystery Man is in two places at once. “It’s a little bit surreal,” he explained to those who hadn’t seen the film. “Imagine if Kévin (Oliveira) had been sold to Atlanta. He could score two goals in one game, for two different teams. One goal for us, one goal for them. It would be fantastic,” he says, laughing. Popovic then elaborated on this bit with a twisted version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First”:
Popovic, as a fictional reporter to a fictional Oliveira: “How many times did you score?”
Fictional Oliveira: “Two.”
Reporter: “Two for that team?”
Oliveira: “No, I scored one for that team, and one for that team.”
Reporter: “It was an own goal?”
Oliveira: “No no no. I scored for MY team.”
Popovic pauses, then smiles before he concludes: “So it’s strange.”
If this whole soccer thing doesn’t work out, he might be able to get a set at Absolute Comedy or Yuk Yuk’s.
“It’s very important to get the three points,” he says, returning to our present in the time-space continuum. “Sometimes things don’t start well, and you have the second half to correct. There are no second chances in this game. Anything that we are given in this 45 minutes, we have to take. Anything we miss or lack in focus, it’s very dangerous. We have to come strong and try to score.”
The Coach and the Sea
One noticeable new wrinkle in Friday’s win against Tampa Bay was the variety in set pieces, especially on corner kicks. When asked about it Sunday morning, Popovic was philosophical in his answer and drew from his time growing up in Portugal. “In Portugal, we have the sea,” he began. “When the sea is agitated—very mean, very strong—if you throw a rock into that sea, you can’t hit anything. You can throw a chair; you can throw a big rock; a small rock; you will not notice anything.” Rough seas can’t be affected by throwing stuff at it. Got it. He continued: “But when the sea is flat, we can throw a small rock, and we can see that the ocean felt it. I think this is the same.”
So, don’t throw chairs on corner kicks?
“No. The sea is like a lot of ideas. You have a lot of them, but they’re all mixed up. Until you settle your ideas, and until (your players) understand everything, nothing will get assimilated.”
It’s a good metaphor, one that illustrates the difficulty Popovic has faced in establishing his ideas in so short a period. With his players now understanding his model of play, the sea is calm, and when a new idea is thrown at them, it is immediately noticeable. Like the Fury’s set plays on Friday night.
Popovic himself was calm and relaxed on Sunday morning, and the ease with which he spoke was noticeable. With his reassurance that his comments on Friday night were not to be taken outside the context of the night’s events, Ottawa soccer fans will be hoping for more stories about David Lynch and the Portuguese sea in the future.